While attending the Music City Bowl in Nashville this December, Tennessee president Joe DiPietro knew the importance of College Football Hall of Fame head coach Phillip Fulmer.
It was that moment when DiPietro knew he had to turn Fulmer from a volunteer on the President's Council to a paid worker for the University.
“At the end of 2016 when we did the volunteer thing, he actually came to the Music City Bowl in 2017 and at that time it was apparent, particularly at a football event, how much everyone cared about him,” DiPietro said.
“I just started thinking, 'Is there a way we could put this together?'”
There were a couple of issues in putting it together.
First of all, in January Fulmer was working diligently to a be factor in Tennessee's search for a new athletic director. A job Fulmer said he was told he wasn't qualified for in his interview.
“It was made clear to me from the very beginning that I didn't fit the criteria and I had good interviews and everyone heard my thoughts,” Fulmer stated.
“I have absolutely no animosity for not being name the athletic director. I simply felt compelled to try for the position because of my love and passion for the University. I went through the proper channels, and I appreciate the support I received internally and from the alumni and fans.”
The second issue that had to be addressed was the fact that the guy who aided in firing Fulmer, John Currie, became Tennessee's new athletic director.
“John Currie fit that criteria. He is certainly working hard and there is much to do. Since his appointment as the athletic director, we have had two or three opportunities to share and discuss and I see John has really grown and matured as an athletic director,” Fulmer said in is press conference remarks.
“He has been very respectful of my time and my position in life as a former coach as well as our pass successes on the field. He has complimented the very loyal and hard working coaches and support staff and players who played and coached during my career. That was a very important bridge for us to share.
The biggest factor in crossing that bridge was arguably Fulmer and Currie's former boss Doug Dickey. Dickey and Currie have remained friends since Dickey retired. Currie actually flew Dickey to Kansas State his first couple of years in Manhattan to visit with him and his state. Dickey and Currie spoke during Tennessee's process of hiring him.
After Currie was hired, Fulmer, who hadn't taken Currie's calls at the time, actually went to Dickey's home in Florida for several days to golf and to talk about Fulmer's future and potential future role with the University.
“I talked for a long time with coach Dickey,” Fulmer said. “I actually went down (to Florida) and played golf with him. He was incredible as my athletic director and was helpful in this decision as well.”
How much Fulmer is involved in athletics remains to be seen. Fulmer contended that having a role in athletics was not a must for him accepting the assignment but acknowledged it only makes sense.
“It could have been or it couldn't have been, but it's a real plus,” Fulmer explained. “If someone has a question you feel good about answering it rather than being separated from it. But this is really an assignment to help the UT system. It's asinine to think that someone coached that long and had the success that we had wouldn't be involved in athletics some way or another.”
Fulmer's return to athletics, where he's tasked with relationships with former players, reunions, etc., is vital in Tennessee's efforts to try and get everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction. An area that's frankly been missing since Fulmer was fired.
It's also something that wouldn't have had a chance to happen had it not been for Dickey's message to both Fulmer and Currie, as well as DiPietro's relationship with the Hall of Fame coach.
“It was crucial,” Fulmer said of clearing the air. “You have to give everyone credit to pull that together. Yea, it was crucial for that to happen. Now the president was the main guy that pulled it all together.
“It was very clear for everyone's benefit especially for the great University of Tennessee system that we must work together to make the academics and athletics the absolute best in the nation.”
Something the Big Orange Nation has been seeking for the last decade.